Honey Bear in Mind: Pre-Spring Activities

I spoke at the Michigan Beekeeper’s Association meeting last weekend, and things were buzzing.  I believe there was a record number of beekeepers and wannabees, and we’re all enthused and excited for spring.

These balmy mid-March temperatures have lured us into thinking any colonies alive now will make it, and hopefully they will.  This dinosaur however recalls significant, sticking-around snowfall in April, and stunningly cold temperatures as well.  It might not yet be over folks …

This blog updates what we should be thinking about now for our live bees, as well as what we should be doing about any dead-outs (common term for colonies that died.)  As always, this is just my opinion and experience.  Others will undoubtedly disagree, and agree.

For the living colonies:

  1. Kiss them all!! (OK, maybe not physically, but emotionally?)  They survived a heckuva winter and should be congratulated!

  1. Checking: when weather permita (lots of bees out flying, minimal winds, 50ish degrees) you can take a peek.  At this point I’m only checking to ensure they have adequate stores.  You may need to provide supplemental feed to ensure they get through any rainy periods or chilly days as their pantries may be low, and there isn’t yet much out there for them.  On Tuesday my first two crocuses popped up.  The bees were lined up to pollinate them …
  1. Feeding: Whether and what you should feed is up to your management philosophy, but here’s what we’re doing:
  • Last fall we Mountain Camped all our hives (see Publications on my site for more info on Mountain Camp.)  About half our survivors are well into eating that sugar “ceiling, so we’re keeping an eye on it to ensure they don’t run out.
  • Luckily (? Ha!) we have plenty of dead-outs, so we’ve taken some of that honey that we’ve deemed OK (see below) and put it in a hive body atop any colonies that have worked their way to the top.  Bees are “chimney eaters”, meaning they tend to eat up, and usually–above where their cluster is.  This time of year, the queen is laying so there’s probably a respectably sized brood nest.  The heat generated there rises and softens the honey above it, so positioning the honey above the brood nest is important.
  • We also have a protein patty in each hive.  I’m ambivalent about using these, but I had them, so I put them in.  It seems like in one of our hives it has caused massive diarrhea, or perhaps that was coincidental.  In another – they devoured it with no apparent side effects.  In most hives though, they’re ignoring it.  So … ?  Some people swear by them; I don’t – yet.
  • On nice days, we’re also open feeding honey from our dead-outs by scratching open the honeycomb, and positioning it about 50’ or more from any hives to discourage raiding.  It is fun to watch all the activity, although it can get a little crazy (and disconcerting) on really warm days as the air is filled with starving bees.  I was wearing a shirt with lime green and hot pink lettering in the yard on a warm day, and about a dozen bees landed on the lettering.  They likely suspected, and hoped, that it was a flower.  Sorry ladies!
  • We put spring syrup in all our front hive feeders just in case.  While I think bees prefer fresh pollen and nectar, there isn’t much of that available.  Also, on a brisk day, they’re not flying, so they’ve got food right in their doorway if they’re interested.
  • And I’ve thanked my neighbor!  She had bees in her bird feeder, which contains “cheap-o bird seed.”  It must have some sort of molasses, sugar or pollen or something in it, because they LOVE her bird feeder and are carrying stuff away from it.  I’ve had a few other people tell me of similar situations.
  1. Assess and plan: If you have live colonies, they’ll hopefully survive and be thriving in a month.  Research now how to split them, and get the equipment ready to give them a new home and hopefully head off swarming.

About Bee Diarrhea

Poop spotting
No, those brown spots generally aren’t bees; they’re bee diarrhea.

If your hive has lots of bee diarrhea, here are some thoughts on that, generally blessed by Meghan Milbrath, PhD. – a beekeeper whose wisdom and insights I trust.

When brown streaks on the hive, frames, etc. are observed, most people immediately jump to thinking they have Nosema, and treat for that.  I don’t, because I don’t have the equipment to definitively diagnose Nosema, and I don’t like to treat my hives anyway.  And, often Nosema will disappear with spring weather and improved nutrition.  That’s one of the reasons I have front feeders full of clean sugar syrup at each alive hive.

Keep in mind:

  • You don’t KNOW it is Nosema unless you see the spores via a microscope.  It could be a virus, it could be from fermented honey, etc.
  • There is no cure for Nosema, although Fumigillin does stop its reproduction.
  • Nosema is highly stress-related.  A colony surviving winter and trying to build-up for spring during wildly varying weather is under great stress.  Nosema does tend to fall by the wayside in a strong colony as spring comes.
  • Dr. Milbrath also suggests requeening a hive with a queen (or her genetics via offspring) that came out of the winter strong from your apiary rather than an unknown, purchased queen.

Dealing with Dead-outs

I have LOTS and LOTS of experience with this, doggone it!  Here’s what I do.

First, try and figure out why.  Common causes are starving to death, even with honey nearby, and I’ve heard of a few people losing their colonies to American Foulbrood.  (Google to learn how to detect it, and please handle it appropriately.)

We had bitter temperatures the last few months.  If there weren’t a sufficient number of bees to reach the honey (and they won’t move when they’re clustered in below zero temperatures), they’ll starve to death—often with plenty of resources in the hive.  The “solution” for this is to have lots of healthy bees going into the winter, which starts in the summer.  A telltale sign of bee starvation is bees clustered on empty honeycombs, often with many of them imbedded way inside the cells so all you see are their little hind ends.  “They” say it is because they were going deep inside the cell to try and obtain any remaining honey.  L  And, honey may be mere inches away, but they couldn’t break cluster because of the cold to move to it.

Second, wax collects contaminants and chemicals.  There are varying recommendations about when to discard wax, but I’m seeing somewhere between 3-5 years.  So, if it is that old, you may want to toss it instead of assessing it for reuse.  (I mark the frames with the queen color code to know how old the wax in it is.)

Please note, I don’t use plastic frames.  Thus, everything on comb clean-up below pertains to wax frames.  I’ve heard one of the joys of plastic frames is you just power wash them down and rewax …

For Diarrhea

If the streaking is severe, I trash the comb, and treat the frames and boxes as follows:

  1. Wash in hot bleach water, rinse well.
  2. Freeze the frames for a few days, and then set them in the sun. (I can’t freeze the boxes—not enough room.)

There are studies that suggest the Nosema spores are negatively impacted by freezing and sunlight.

Dr. Milbrath adds that you could soak them in bleach if you’re concerned (sunlight will then breakdown the bleach), or use heat on frames that don’t have wax.

If the honeycomb is not too severely streaked, perhaps just spotted in areas, I’ll reuse it in stronger, surviving colonies in my apiary.

Dead Bees

I brush them off, and sometimes will even start picking them out—until I get too grossed out, giving them a proper Christian burial of course.  My rationale is three-fold:

1)  as I’m reusing that honeycomb for new colonies, I think it sends the wrong message!  (“Hey, welcome.  Hope you thrive.  Pay no attention to all those dead bees you have to clean up!!”)

2)  Bees make honey, and clean out comb.  I’d like to help them, and as I can’t make honey, I’ll clean out their comb.

3)  Sometimes mold problems develop, and then it is REALLY gross.  So, knocking / brushing off most of the bees, and separating the frames a bit as they hang out in my garage awaiting future use seems to help.

Moldy Frames

Usually airing out in sunlight takes care of it.  Storing (until used) with air circulation helps, although it is always a race between how long it can hang out in the garage until wax moths and mice find it.

 Honey Frames

Some of our colonies must have died early, leaving us plenty of beautifully capped honey.  We’re extracting some of it, and about half—especially the partly filled frames – we’re saving to use in our new colonies and splits.

Propolis and Burr Comb

My first few years of beekeeping, I used to scrape all of this out of any dead-outs.  The bees faithfully put it back in.

I now only scrape away major chunks of propolis, because I have a buddy who uses it for medicinal products, and the propolis from areas that I don’t want to fight all season long.  For example, if the frames and frame rests are so gummed up that getting them in easily isn’t possible, I scrape those parts down.

Mouse-Attacked Honeycomb

Mice moved in to some of our dead-outs, although fortunately they had moved on before I opened up the dead-outs and tore them apart, or you would’ve heard me scream.  I’ve heard that bees don’t like mouse-scented comb.  If I have a frame of honeycomb with some mouse chewing areas, I knock those out.  The bees will repair the comb.  If the entire thing is fairly trashed from mice, I trash it, leaving some of the wax around the edges if possible.  It will serve as a guide for the bees to rebuild the comb.

Bottom Boards, etc.

As hopefully the hive will never again NOT be full of live bees, I will repaint any woodenware of a dead-out that needs it, and repair any weak areas.  Actually, I put it in a stack for my husband to repair.  🙂

On the Other Hand …

My commercial beekeeping buddy Jon once demonstrated how he cleans up a dead-out.  He took the first box off the top of the three-stack colony, and smacked it so some of the dead bees fell out.  He did the same to the remaining boxes.  Took less than five minutes.  That’s one approach.

Dead-Out Pep Talk

Dead-outs happen, to the best beekeepers.  The national average for overwintering loss is 30%, and I’ve heard rumors of 50% in our area due to the bitter temperatures of the last few months.  If you have dead-outs, that drawn comb is a tremendous boost.  Why not use the education you’ve gained and get “back on the horse” and line-up some more bees?  Now is the time to order packages or nucs.  The world needs beekeepers.

In summary:

Sorry this was such a long update, but I like to provide too much information rather than not enough.  I was once a frustrated newbee looking for answers.

As always, email me or comment with more questions or alternate insights and opinions.  We can all learn from it.

Thanks for reading.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *